Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity. I’m Akwe Amosu, here with episode 34 of our podcast about the tools, tactics and strategies being used to advance human rights around the world… And this time –
- What’s it been like for a human rights organization to survive authoritarian rule in Hungary? The answer may not be what you were expecting…
- and in the Coda, the poet who is both “nightingale and lioness” to Iranian human rights activists.
AA: Most accounts of human rights work in Hungary over the past decade suggest a forced retreat, or even defeat. Organisations working to defend and expand rights came hard up against an increasingly powerful right-wing movement, personified by Victor Orban and his Fidesz party. Individual activists were targeted for harassment and public vilification, donors funding rights work were aggressively attacked, notably George Soros, himself originally a Hungarian who became the emblem of what the right hated and taunted. Groups on the ground saw courts packed with judges friendly to the regime, the constitution amended, and laws passed making groups declare their foreign funding, drawing attacks and smear campaigns. The state’s hostility also made others in civil society afraid to be associated with human rights groups. So you are probably assuming that all this was a disaster for human rights in Hungary. That was certainly my impression when I began my interview with Stefánia Kapronczay, co-director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. But hard as it has been for human rights defenders to live through this period, it seems I was wrong in my assumptions. I started by asking Stefi how much support the Fidesz government has among Hungarians.
Stefánia Kapronczay: So I think the Hungarian population can be divided roughly into three pieces. One third, 30-40%, supports this government, some of them wholeheartedly, and they would vote for them, no matter what, and some are more making the choice based on their interest. Then about one third of the Hungarian population is really against, would do anything to get rid of them. And then there’s one third who is really apolitical, who doesn’t really turn up to vote, who doesn’t believe that, uh, politics can bring anything good for them. So when you look at that, I think you realize the power of the institutional shifts and the media changes – that with that amount of support you are able to win a two-thirds majority. That’s one thing. But the other thing is that, that you really have as an organization that is opposed to those ideas, a large amount of people to talk to, and that you can have a bigger supporting base, and you have actually something to really build on. And, um, this is something that we realized back, I think around 2013, that now that we are cut off from all these channels that we are used to, we can turn to tools that we really neglected, and those are tools that concern people and really understand and involve and mobilize people. So from legal type of advocacy, very professional work, we more and more turned to being an organization that mobilizes, that gives tools for people to participate, and really conveys not only legal standards, not only constitutional rights standards, but values. And that’s a huge shift for us.
AA: When you say you’d neglected it before, what’s that about? What had become the dominant way of advancing rights before that?
SK: So, because we had all this access, we were able to discuss with ministries, we were able to discuss with parliamentarians. So it was really advocacy through that. And I think it was also because it was a really efficient way to do things after the change of the system, probably in the early 1990s – it was something that really worked and the government and ministers really responded because they also were really keen on entering the European Union, which happened in 2004. So it was a completely different situation then. And also, I think history is so important, history and culture of an individual country, because it was not part of our history to have big movements. There are examples, but there was always repression. There were always, or most of the time, foreign rulers, or there were really, really short periods in which there was some sort of a democratic government. So we really didn’t have experience. And I think we are now in the process of gaining that experience. And experience is so important when doing these things, because even if you fail, you already know that this is something that can be done and the next time you can build on that. It’s a huge mind shift for me because it requires you to be patient. It requires you to appreciate also things when they fail because there is something that you can already build on. You already have a connection; you already experience what is it to sign a petition. And then the next time maybe you don’t only sign a petition, but you go on a strike and, and so on and so on. But you really have to go through those steps.
AA: That is so interesting because I think in so many places there’s a history of activism on the ground, of grassroots mobilizations, a history of maybe labor movement strikes or supported protest around anti-nuclear weapons or whatever it happens to be, there’s history. And in a way, the professional forms of human rights work – the litigation, the standard-setting, international architecture to support and advance rights – that came later, that came after that grassroots activism. And part of the challenge that I think many of us are seeing is the need, in a way, to get back to that. But what you are saying is that these are new lessons that need to be learned to build power through activism, through people-focused active engagement rather than the standard-setting and law-making.
SK: Yeah. Yeah. And, it requires completely different skills on, on our part as well. So we used to be a predominantly legal organization so we had a lot of lawyers, and now lawyers are half of the staff, no longer the majority. And we have a huge communication department. and we have other staff members as well like field workers and people experienced with community organizing and experts also on different issues. So it really transformed the organization and it’s really a work in progress. So what I’m really interested in nowadays is that we started a regional program in 2020, which means that we opened offices outside of Budapest. We take this learning process so seriously, one of the goals with these offices is that we get more understanding of what concerns people. So, we usually have like certain set of topics on which we provide legal aid, but in these offices, you can come with anything and that feeds back to our strategy. So we already had topics that we added to our strategy, because of this. So it has a lot of difficulties – like, how do you integrate this? Do you integrate this? But it, I feel like that it’s really worthy and this is what we should be doing.
AA: Have you actually experienced some of your more traditional lawyer staff or the people in the field who are used to working in the older way being resistant and being frustrated. I’m curious about how it’s been to try and shepherd a community of people in this new direction.
SK: Yeah, I take it really seriously that I believe in participative leadership. So it’s not, like, you know, the leadership team decides certain things. It’s a really long consultative process through which we have our strategy. My co-director and me, we have the final say about strategy, but we have really long conversations with staff members and their experience. And of course we set the priorities, but they really feel, and rightly so, that they’ve been listened to. So I’m proud to say that since I was elected, we are able to retain staff members, I mean, of course there is people who come and go, but, um, there was one person who was really critical of my ideas but he remained on staff anyhow, and he’s still there and he’s still a little bit of, you know, in the mood of opposing some of the decisions. But I like to have him there because it keeps us in check as well. And, so I think that is really important because, um, the stronger the organization is, the better you can really move forward to your goals. So maybe you are a visionary, maybe you have a wonderful idea, but you, if you don’t have a strong organization, if you don’t have people who are with you, who are really actually doing the work, then it’s probably not gonna be that impactful. While if you invest in them, then you may be slower, but, uh, more impactful. And it’s also, to me, like, this is the kind of leadership that I would like to see in the country that I’m trying to practice in the organization. So it really speaks to that as well.
AA: You said earlier that the human rights movement and your own organization are stronger, which perhaps might have come as a bit of a surprise to people imagining the conditions in which you are working. Could you say a little more about what that means, what stronger means in this context?
SK: Yeah, certainly. So stronger means that we can have an impact on more people’s life. So we can help people more, through various means. So we really took seriously this legal empowerment goal that we have. So we have both trainings and online materials that are available and these became a very widely used tool among dissenters, among protestors. But for example, when there is a huge change in the legal system, we also see huge peak in visitors that are coming to our website. So, for example, when the pandemic started, in a country of 10 million, in one year, we had 1 million unique visitors to our Know Your Rights materials. The government was not providing information, HCLU was. And I mean, it’s really slow because first you want people to be aware of their rights and then start using that, and then you can assist them in it, and then they can already imagine that things can get different. So that’s, that’s one part. And we really see that there is an increase in the people that we are reaching and against all odds, I also see that there is an increase in, uh, people who are invested in local political activism. It’s not only the HCLU’s work, it’s a lot of organizations’ work that went into that, but there is a huge change in that. It might not be visible if you take two steps back but for us it’s really visible that we have more allies, more people who are interested, you know, ranging from bringing a camera to every single local municipality meeting in order to, to ensure transparency, you know, fighting for disabled people, having an access to a market, building. So that’s one, one thing. But also, the values part that I wanna really get back to is that, uh, we started to talk about why rights are important, why do they matter? So, we produce materials, that talk about that, that are really designed to trigger your feelings and, and, and really tap into your values and really kind of elevate the stories of people who are active, in order to really show that this is possible. So we founded in an award, a freedom award, in which, each year we celebrate 10 human rights activists or, or local non-partisan political activists who did something for their community. And we really teach them how to speak, uh, how to tell their story. And we organize media and they get claps and everything, which-
AA: – and the award is a public thing – that’s something everybody can see?
SK: Yes. And it’s also, it’s important for two things. One is that these people really rarely get a prize, like praise or, compliments or anything. They usually just get pushback. And the second thing is that you are really changing the narrative from, “This is not possible. This is not worth it. This is something that you shouldn’t even think about,” to these positive stories, to the stories of, you know, people like everyone who are doing that.
AA: Can I ask you a question, just to interrupt for a second, are there any visible, practical ways in which you are seeing support for your work rise?
SK: Yeah, I think a very easily measured part of it is, uh, our income or our revenue from individual donors – Hungarians, and Hungarian businesses. Back when I started in, in 2013, our budget looked like 95 plus percent came from grants and a big chunk of it from one institutional donor. While now, 30% of our annual budget is coming from these donations, these Hungarians who are donating to our mission. And of course, in the meantime, our budget has grown as well. so it’s a very significant chunk. It’s the biggest chunk. So the next is coming from an institutional donor that is less than 25%. So it’s like, it really allows us a huge flexibility in how we are designing our work, but also huge responsibility. We are really accountable to those people now, or much more than than ever before.
AA: This is a huge way to confirm your point about being stronger, because I don’t think there’s a human rights organization in the world that wouldn’t be delighted at that level of grasroots support financially.
SK: Yeah. And, uh, we are really proud of that, and we worked really hard to get here.
AA How did you do it actually? I mean, what was your strategy for raising those funds?
SK: So first you really had to decide that this is something that you’re gonna be serious about. And then again, to my previous point, it is important to have everyone on board, it’s not enough that I am the communication director and decide anything – it’s that we had like really serious conversations about why is it everyone’s business that we want to do that, and what it means –
AA: – Everyone in the organization?
SK: – Everyone in the organization, it doesn’t mean that they have to ask for money, but this is something, it’s kind of a mindset or a filter that they need to have. So that was really the first thing. And then came how we started to talk about our work, how we started to present it through stories, of course, through values of course, and really giving ways for people to connect to that. And a great example of that I really love is, is one T-shirt that a local designer designed for us. And, the t-shirt became a really successful merchandising product, and it says “Free” full stop. And in Hungarian it’s really, really, really powerful because it has multiple meanings, it’s that you have a freedom to, you are allowed to, and, uh, freedom – it’s a value that really resonates with a lot of Hungarians. So, we really actually researched it as well, that this is something that resonates with many people. And I actually really love it because it’s something that you are ‘free to’ fill with meaning, whatever it means for them, means for you. And we had these campaigns with influencers who wore our T-shirt and wrote a testimony about what it means for them. So, it really invited people to participate. And, see this T-shirt everywhere – whenever there is a demonstration, we see a lot of “free” T-shirts.
AA: You said there wasn’t a tradition of activism that could be relied upon. You have to build it, but it sounds as though there’s an appetite. And I’m, I’m just curious how this connects back to public opinion in general? You’re building a constituency for rights and, and obviously you are particularly focused on them, but to what extent do you think there’s an echo in general public opinion about these broadly progressive liberal ideas?
SK: So I think that’s the challenge for now, and that’s the challenge now for the regional program. And that’s the challenge for us to really show why human rights and democratic principles are directly influencing your life. We were able now to reach people who were already sympathetic to this idea. And I think we are able to uh give them hope and give them means to connect to this. And we are also able to reach younger generations, through our support for activism and through our value-based communication. But what we really want to do now, and that’s the big next step, is at least in the cities where we are present, to really build communities around rights and democracy, and also find the ways and find the locations where real people are, to really show them, uh, what it means for their everyday life. Just to give you an example, like go to, a whatever festival in a certain city where people usually go to, to drink wine, to eat sausage, whatever, and have a stand there and have programs there, where we are talking about issues that are really concerning for them. But that requires us learning a lot and really paying attention and, and then designing the events that we are bringing there.
AA: If you stand back and look at the way that this experience of the past decade has shaped the broader community of activists, civil society people, the human rights field, what are your reflections?
SK: Yeah, so there are, um, damages that were made and there are organizations that shut down. There are women and Roma organizations who lost funding and they needed to shut down. At the same time, this attack on independent civil society really made us stronger, as a movement as well. And, um, it was a really painstaking process. There were many failures, many discussions that led nowhere, many attempts at trying to forge something together that, that fell through. At the same time, there are environmental organizations, human rights organizations, anti-corruption organizations, community-building organizations that came together and in a really long process got to know each other and really found what the shared thing in our vision is. And really started working on that together. And it results in really practical things like joint projects, but it really results also in having more tools available when you are faced with a problem. And what is also important, having people that are with you, that support you, and then when you lose hope, they kind of bring you up.
AA: It’s quite striking to me that, uh, despite the fact that we started this interview with the context of the Fidesz government and Victor Orban, you know, breathing down the neck of human rights people, you really haven’t mentioned them. It doesn’t appear to be a strong part of your narrative about the work you are doing. Are they getting in your way? Or what’s the impact of having a hostile government while you’re trying to expand like this?
SK: So, I mean, if I am concerned with them, then I’m following their narrative. So I don’t really care what they are saying. It also means that I’m not – and we are not – reacting to every single outrageous thing that they are doing. It also means that in our communication we follow a path because we wanna get messages across, we wanna talk about our clients, we wanna talk about what we achieved with our clients, and we don’t wanna be disrupted all the time by what they are doing. I really think that this is the future, and they are still here, but they are the past. We have this saying in, in Hungarian, I’m not sure how it sounds in English…
AA: Say, say it in Hungarian and then tell, tell us what it means.
SK: So it’s, um, Előbb jöttünk, tovább maradunk which means, “we were here first and we will stay longer.” And that’s something that really drives our work every day.
AA: Thank you, Stefi
SK: Thank you.
AA: Stefánia Kapronczay is a co-director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union – we spoke in February. A full transcript is available on our website, Strengthandsolidarity.org
AA: For the Coda this time, we’re both in – and outside – Iran. “In” because we are focused on a poem by Simin Behbahani, written in 2009 amid the post-election protests against rigged results, and the autocratic religious rule that has had Iran in its grip since 1979. But we’re also “outside,” because the reflections come from someone who was a young activist as a student in Tehran but was forced to leave and is now based in New York. Farnoosh Hashemian is now a human rights lawyer working to promote justice, rights, and peace in her country, as well as doing other intensive work to support activists in Afghanistan and in fields like public health and women’s rights. She starts by reading Behbahani’s poem, “Stop throwing my country to the wind.”
“Stop throwing my country to the wind. If the flames of anger rise any higher in this land, if the flames of anger rise any higher in this land, your name on your tombstone will be covered with dirt. You have become a babbling loudmouth. You have become a babbling loud mouth and your insolent ranting, something to joke about. The lies you have found, you have woven together. I fear the rope you have crafted would fasten around your neck. Pride has swollen your head. Your vision of faith has grown blind. I fear the elephant that falls could not rise. Stop this extravagance, this reckless throwing of my country to the wind. Stop this extravagance, this reckless throwing of my country to the wind. Stop this screaming mayhem, bloodshed. Stop what makes God’s creatures mourn with tears. My curses will not be upon you as, in their fulfillment, my enemies’ afflictions also cause me pain. You may wish to have me burned. You may wish to have me burned, or decide to stone me, but in your hand, match or stone will lose their power to harm me.”
Farnoosh Hashemian: The Iranian people’s struggle for democracy and equality, is over a century long now. And this poem came about after the 2009 uprising that followed the election that Iranians perceived to be rigged – millions of people showed up in the streets asking for their vote to be respected. And in response, the Iranian government used brute force and killed many, and Simin Behbahani, who was known to be Iran’s nightingale and lioness poet, and over six decades she’s fearlessly and outspokenly talked about the issues of censorship, issues of political domination and defiantly fighting against that, she wrote this poem in response. So she’s basically talking to the Iranian government, to the authoritarian regime and saying, “stop burning this country to the ground and respect people’s wishes, particularly women.”
FH: Basically, this desire and demand and, and struggle that we’ve had for years to just ask for the government to be a rational government and stop using bloodshed as a way to stay in power. Over the years, anger and the desperation and dissent has grown and this poem is reminding us that it will keep growing if the government doesn’t change its course and respond in a way that respects rights.
FH: What I read in this poem is that it’s talking about reprimanding the government but it’s coming from a place of love. It’s saying, I’m not even gonna curse you. You don’t deserve my curse, because I want things to be fixed. I want this country to be fixed. So stop lying, stop fueling this anger that you have started and you keep fueling by your, actions. And she’s saying these words knowing that she’s actually gonna be facing risk. She was very outspoken and she was censored, she was banned from leaving the country, her poetry readings were canceled. She had to hold poetry readings underground. But despite all of this, she was willing to speak the truth, to power. One of the things that she told the government when she was pressured, she said, “Shamshir e man hamin She’rast – my sword is just my poem. What are you gonna do with me?” You know. <laugh>
FH: Maybe seven or eight years before she wrote this poem, I was a young 20-year-old student engaging in student activism and I was attending poetry readings in Tehran. And these were gatherings men and women could attend together and just because of that they were outlawed… And so, there would be a poetry reading and there would be a reflection on that poem, and it would always link back to the repression, and the rebellion that was happening at the same time in the Iranian society. And in one of these meetings she was there, and I got so excited to meet her because of her particular activism on women’s rights. So I went to her, and I had my Hafez book, and I asked her to sign it, and she asked who I was, and I said this is who I am, this is what I believe in, I told her a little bit about my activism and I was actually just so happy and delighted to have met her that I was smiling, um, constantly. And in her note to me, she said, um, “To your beautiful smile, always smile as you’re fighting.” And that to me was just like that resemblance of how she saw beauty and struggle kind of going hand in hand. Kind of like, do not forget that there is beauty in life while there’s darkness around you.
AA: Thank you Farnoosh Hashemian for that moving reflection. You can find details about Simin Behbahani’s poem and other information, on the podcast page of our website.
AA: And that’s it for episode 34 of Strength and Solidarity… thanks for hanging out with us… Just a couple more episodes before we complete season four so a reminder that if there’s an episode from earlier seasons that you’d like us to run again during the upcoming break – do let us know – by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. For now, though, from producer Peter Coccoma and me Akwe Amosu, see you next time.